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Drain opener poisoning

Drain opening agents are chemicals used to open clogged drains, often in homes. Drain opening agent poisoning can occur if a child accidentally drinks these chemicals, or if someone splashes the poison into the eyes when pouring it or breathes in the fumes of "foaming" drain openers.

This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.

Poisonous Ingredient

Poisonous ingredients include:

  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Lye (sodium hydroxide or caustic soda)
  • Potassium hydroxide
  • Sulfuric acid

Where Found

These chemicals are found in drain cleaners or opener products. These agents may also be present in other sources.

Symptoms

Drain opener poisoning can cause symptoms in many parts of the body.

BLOOD

  • Severe change in acid level of blood (pH balance), which leads to damage in all of the body organs

EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT

  • Burns to the eyes, which may result in permanent vision loss
  • Severe pain in the throat
  • Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue

GASTROINTESTINAL SYSTEM

HEART AND CIRCULATORY SYSTEM

LUNGS AND AIRWAYS

  • Breathing difficulty (from breathing in drain opening agent)
  • Throat swelling (may also cause breathing difficulty)

SKIN

  • Burns
  • Holes (necrosis) in the skin or tissues underneath
  • Irritation

Home Care

Seek medical help RIGHT AWAY. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care provider.

If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.

If the chemical was swallowed, immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a provider. DO NOT give water or milk if the person is having symptoms (such as vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness) that make it hard to swallow.

If the person breathed in the poison, immediately move them to fresh air.

Before Calling Emergency

Get the following information:

  • Person's age, weight, and condition
  • Name of the product (and ingredients and strength, if known)
  • Time it was swallowed
  • Amount swallowed

Poison Control

Your local poison control center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The person may receive:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • Breathing support, including oxygen through a tube into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator)
  • Bronchoscopy -- camera down the throat to look for burns in the airways and lungs (if the poison was aspirated)
  • Chest x-ray
  • ECG (heart tracing)
  • Endoscopy -- camera down the throat to look for burns in the esophagus and the stomach
  • Fluids through a vein (by IV)
  • Medicine to reverse the effect of the poison and treat symptoms
  • Surgical removal of burned skin (skin debridement)
  • Tube through the mouth into the stomach to aspirate (suck out) the stomach. This is done only when the person gets medical care within 30 to 45 minutes of the poisoning, and a very large amount of the substance has been swallowed
  • Washing of the skin (irrigation) -- perhaps every few hours for several days

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment is received. The faster the person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.

If this type of poison gets in the eye, it can be very dangerous and difficult to manage. Loss of vision is common.

Swallowing such poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Burns in the airway or gastrointestinal tract can lead to tissue death. This may result in infection, shock, and death, even several months after substance was swallowed. Scar tissue in the affected areas can lead to long-term problems with breathing, swallowing, and digestion.

Alternative Names

Drain opening agents

References

Blanc PD. Acute responses to toxic exposures. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 75.

Hoyte C. Caustics. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 148.

Review Date 9/26/2019

Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.